Thursday, November 15, 2007

Voting With Their Wallets

Booming independent schools

You see it's like this- when customers call the shots, suppliers have to provide what they want.

Hence the current moves by independent schools to abandon the government's increasingly whacky National Curriculum and implement one based on what parents want. For primary level pupils this would include more emphasis on spelling, multiplication tables and key historical dates, at the expense of the Commissars' preference for parenting skills, obesity, citizenship and homophobia.

Unlike Commissar Balls, these people know what the customers want, and are in the business of providing it. So it's worth listening to what they say.

Michael Spinney, chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, says:

“The national curriculum is in a number of respects being overwhelmed by a social agenda that has accompanied it. That social agenda is not something that we want to get sucked into.

Increasingly, we are living in an era where teaching and learning are sacrificed in favour of fashionable causes, often with disastrous effects upon standards of learning... The Government is increasingly putting a social agenda into the equation. It has an issue about multicultural society and subjects such as slavery. What we’re interested in is knowledge, rigour and fundamental skills."

Bernard Trafford, chairman of the Head Masters Conference , says:

“We should use our independence. The curriculum has lessons in citizenship, sex education. Health and safety will be next. It’s just crazy, schools are being looked upon to solve society’s ills. If they spent all their time on that then there would be complaints that we weren’t educating children properly.”

And Pat Langham, president of the Girls' Schools Association, says:

“Some national curriculum initiatives have been like a roller-coaster and state schools are trapped in the cars, hurtling towards measurement. We aren’t.”

Pat's hit the nail on the head. Whereas many state school heads also tear their hair out over the antics of the Commissars (see many previous blogs on the job from hell), they are powerless. Their money all comes from the Commissars, so they have to obey, however mad the orders (which is why so many leave, and state schools have a head teacher recruitment crisis).

In the independent schools sector, the money comes direct from customers. The Commissars find it much harder to trap anyone in their hurtling cars.

So how do we know the independent schools are actually providing what the customers want?

Ah, the genius of markets. We know for sure independent schools are doing the biz because parents are prepared to pay for it.

In fact, so great is the current demand for independent education, the price has rocketed by 40% in the last five years, and market share has increased to 7.3% of 11-15 year olds. In Tyler's Surrey it's now 20% (see Telegraph graphic above).

Polls have long shown that most people would buy private schooling if they could afford it, and the Commissars routinely do so for their own kids.

It's only the 93% of parents who can't afford to pay twice who are denied the opportunity to vote with their wallets. Their only recourse is tweedledum or tweedledee at the ballot box. Which gives the Commissars a free hand to try whatever whacky idea happens to pop into their tiny Chinese minds.

Bring on those vouchers.

PS Since George's great tax-cutting triumph, there are some hints that Dave & Co are edging back towards real parent empowerment. Pupil Passports are still a distant dream, but allowing parents to take over failing schools is an interesting step in the right direction.

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